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Tenchu Z


Everyone loves ninjas. Ok, maybe not "everyone" but gosh darn it all, everyone should. This oft romanticized and worshiped archetype has roots in so many genres across all sorts of media. Whether you're playing a game, watching a movie, or reading a book there's just something fascinating about a ninja doing their work. Take Tenchu for instance.

The Tenchu franchise has been a go-to for PlayStation owners looking for bloody action since the late 90's. Fitting players into the ninja shoes of Rikimaru, head of the Azuma clan, your goal was to run around feudal Japan using skills, items, and magic to assassinate targets. Like Metal Gear Solid this game revolved HEAVILY on stealth. Quite honestly stealth was the only thing going for it. The going got tougher once you were discovered and if you wanted to have any hope of finishing the stage you had to keep the shadows.

Not much has changed with the latest installment into the series, Tenchu Z, though now the franchise finds a new home on the Xbox 360. With a story revolving around the Azuma clan once again and a loose mismatch of plot lines and mission cut scenes the newest Tenchu brings us back to the roots of the gameplay; killing people. There's little else to do with this game to be quite honest because it's not like the not-so-sweeping narrative is going to keep you interested. You'll simply run around and murder unsuspecting people with a number of predetermined stealth kill attacks. Does this simplistic system work well enough to keep the franchise alive? Or does it need to go back to ninja training camp?

Gameplay


The easy answer to that question is that Tenchu Z does indeed have to find its way to little ninja elementary school. Considering this release is well into the franchise's lineup you'd think that more innovation would have been put into place. Unfortunately this installment sends us back to the original game's premise with little in the way of new things to see and do. There is also an unfortunate number of flaws that permeate every facet of the gameplay and design. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that this is the first time the series has appeared on the Xbox 360 but whatever the case it's inexcusable.

To be brutally honest there are so many things wrong with Tenchu Z that I do not know where to begin. Well, actually, let's talk about what's good first to put a positive spin on things.

The game's concept is a hell of a lot of fun. It always has been. Skulking around a Japanese village at nighttime, running along rooftops, and getting the drop on unsuspecting guards are the things that have kept Tenchu alive. Quite honestly they still work in the most basic sense. Varying death sequences and ways to kill people are things homicidal gamers dream of and Tenchu Z offers plenty to sink your teeth into. Sadly, this is the only feather in Z's cap.

When you start the game you'll be able to customize a ninja essentially to your liking. You no longer play as Rikimaru (he is the guy you talk to for missions) or another prominent member of the Azuma clan. Instead you're a nameless and essentially soulless personality that isn't incorporated or invested into the story at all. It leaves things feeling less dramatic and quite generic when you get right down to it.

Throughout the game you'll be able to customize your character with skills and abilities which is nice. If you're returning to Z from another Tenchu game you'll also be looking for the various items that are used to get you out of tight spots should you find yourself in one. They are here but quite frankly thanks to the game's AI they are pointless. Some clothes are available for buying as well to further customize your ninja but considering the game will not let you see what something is before you buy it you're blindly wasting your money.

To put it bluntly, the aforementioned AI in Tenchu Z it is downright atrocious. Granted the main theme with any Tenchu game is sticking to the shadows to avoid detection and killing people without them realizing you're there. In most stages it's inevitable that no matter how careful you are there's a good chance someone will spot you due to their placement on the map. When this happens the HUD will flash and the controller will vibrate like a cheap massager and you'll think "Oh crap!" In most circumstances you don't have to worry. Simply hide for roughly ten seconds and the guard will give up looking and go back to his post, often with his back turned.

The AI is particularly funny when they spot a dead buddy. They'll run over to the corpse, spin around looking in all directions, put their sword away, and swagger back to where they were when they spotted the body; simply forgetting about the rotting body ten feet away from them. The funny part is you receive no point deductions for a situation like this and if you do happen to be discovered the penalty at the end of a mission is minimal at best.

Due to the AI behaving in this manner the game becomes incredibly easy and forgivable no matter what difficulty you happen to be playing it on. Whether it's Easy, Normal, or Hard, however many times you screw up you'll still pass the mission with flying colors. Adding to this cakewalk sensation is the fact that every map is recycled again and again to the extent that your assassination target even resides in the same building as another of your victims. There is no sense of adventure, no difficulty, and above all no fun.

Actually, strike that. There is some difficulty. The cumbersome and hard to control camera make things downright frustrating in almost any situation you find yourself in. In fact, if you do happen to alert guards of your presence it is most likely due to the inadequate and dated camera system. The camera becomes a lot harder to deal with once you find yourself in a fight as well.

Fighting in Tenchu Z is to be avoided at all costs. The stealth kills are there for a reason; use them! With convoluted control, unresponsive button presses, and a weak combat system on top of the camera is just too much to bear. In most cases you'll be able to simply slink back into the shadows and wait ten seconds for another attempt at a stealth kill. The only exception to this strategy is the occasional boss battle that pops up from time to time. In these events healing items are your friends and prove to be the only useful tools in the game.

Whether you have played a Tenchu game or not these flaws are unforgivable. Z lacks ingenuity and in many ways finds itself as one of the worst entries into the franchise. From Software put in some Xbox Live support but the same problems exist throughout thanks to the shoddy gameplay. Apart from the game's concept there is little to make this game worth buying. This one had a lot of potential but poor execution and lazy development keeps it grounded in light rental territory.

Graphics


Visually Tenchu Z is a less-than stellar Xbox 360 game. The textural detail is limited, animations are often clunky, and graphical variety leaves something to be desired. Sure the title comes with 480p, 720p, and 1080i support but when the game looks like a PlayStation 2 game you're not exactly going to be impressed by that.

The only area where Tenchu Z impresses is the atmosphere. The feudal Japan environments are mostly rich and populated with various trappings but when you see the same structure and same set of items used from mission to mission the veil slowly begins to drop. Points do go in Tenchu's favor for gallons of over-the-top spraying blood.

Sound


A slight step up in presentation value is the audio which offers decent surround support and functional material. The soundtrack is relatively light and typically is available only at certain intervals with some light ambient noise striking during actual missions. The voice acting is decent though during actual gameplay it can become quite repetitive. The same can be said for sound effects which generally work given the game's premise. The sense of immersion while playing is good enough with the rear channels kicking in at the right times with some support.

Conclusion


I have long-appreciated the Tenchu series and attempt to play every installment. I hate to say it but my experience with Tenchu Z was significantly less than I was expecting. The concept behind the game's design is just as enjoyable as ever but the many flaws ranging from shoddy AI to camera issues and combat do not make for an enjoyable time.

If you can look past the glaring issues there are some fun moments within Tenchu Z. Worming your way through a thickly guarded wood, dispatching guards, throwing shuriken at puppies, and ultimately striking down your target is a blast. It's just a shame that generic game design, a lack of creativity, and repetitiveness blanket this game from start to finish. There is enough quality here to warrant a rental but I wouldn't advise you drop $60 on the game.